By Dr. Russ Wigginton
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. If you ask the typical 13-year-old if they know this fact, most would probably answer yes. If you ask that same 13-year-old who shot Dr. King and why he was even in Memphis that day, you may be surprised by the answers you receive.
The National Civil Rights Museum asks young people questions about civil rights history every day. In fact, they ask about 200,000 people a year, from all backgrounds and beliefs, to think about our nation’s history through the prism of civil rights. I happen to live in Memphis and have a doctorate in African American history, so I pay attention to such situations routinely.
For the people who recall the Supreme Court’sBrown v. Board of Education decision, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the March on Washington, visiting the museum brings back memories and causes them to reflect on many issues faced in their lifetime. That is often a personally moving experience that motivates people to get more engaged in their communities.
For today’s youth, however, these events are less real than the typical “reality” television shows they watch on a daily basis. The museum recognized that trend some years ago and decided to do what civil rights activists do—it took action.
The museum’s breathtaking renovation project will make civil rights history relevant, accessible and, yes, fun for present and future generations. Once completed, the facility will capture the imaginations of Americans and give everyone the opportunity to feel like they are participants in our country’s collective struggle for civil and human rights.
How productive has our national conversation been on same-sex marriage? How about the sensitivities of the Trayvon Martin shooting? Or the differences between presidential candidates? In case you haven’t noticed, our country does not feel very collective these days. Divisiveness seems to rule the day.
The National Civil Rights Museum has long been a place to have collective conversation, and once the renovations are completed, visitors will be able to experience the struggles and victories of years gone by and connect them to today’s current events. High-tech interactive displays will allow visitors to share stories about the important issues facing our nation today. This will mean something to you and to our youth.
I plan to take my 13 year-old son to visit the National Civil Rights Museum again when the renovation is completed. After visiting and experiencing more of our nation’s history, perhaps he will not give me a blank stare when I ask him why education is the civil rights issue of today, or why James Earl Ray was in Memphis that day.
That’s the kind of historical bridge the museum is building for our nation’s youth. I cannot wait.
Dr. Russ Wigginton is Vice President for External Programs at Rhodes College. In this
role, he helps establish and implement institutional strategy for the college’s engagement with the Memphis community. Dr. Wigginton previously taught in the History department at Rhodes and specialized in African American and community history. In 2006, he published a book titled, “The Strange Career of the Black Athlete: African-Americans and Sports” with Greenwood Press. He has also published articles and essays on African American social history.